Palm Pilot Connects Girl with Classroom

by Jennie Borodko Stack

Like a lot of children her age, 10-year-old Jennifer Rossman enjoys using a computer. Along with television, the computer has been a mainstay for Jen (as she prefers to be called).

With a diagnosis of SMA since infancy, Jen has learned at home rather than at school, because of her parents' concerns about respiratory infections. Using electronic gadgetry has enabled her to connect for the first time with her local public school classroom.

The only child of Drew A. and Donna Rossman of Oneonta, N.Y., Jen became intrigued when her father brought home an electronic organizer called a Palm Pilot. Designed to hold a calendar and to-do lists, much like a daytimer book, the electronic tool is one of several varieties of small, computerized planners.

The size of a pocket calculator, the organizer is intended to be used away from the computer, then connected via cable to the PC to update or exchange information. A small screen replicates the desktop display of a PC monitor and can be used to view text. To enter information, users lightly tap the surface with a finger or a plastic stylus, which looks like a small pencil or pen. A Palm Pilot doesn't normally control the mouse, keyboard or monitor display on a computer.

Jen Rossman, 10, uses the Palm Pilot to go to Web pages and send e-mail.
Jen Rossman, 10, uses the Palm Pilot to go to Web pages and send e-mail.

But Rossman's interest in technology led him to an online discovery of some free software applications that would enable the Palm Pilot to do just that. After her dad downloaded and installed them, Jen began to use the organizer to get access to the Internet and send e-mail. That, in turn, led to her interacting regularly by e-mail with three fourth-grade students in her district.

"The idea is that as time goes on, she will take more of a direct part in it," says Rossman of the "virtual mainstreaming."

He adds that the school's immediate interest is in "having her do literature with the class: Get a book, read it and follow along with the class, and respond by e-mail just as if she was there and handing in paperwork."

Jen also uses a lightweight, adapted keyboard provided by the school district. Although she prefers the keyboard for entering a large amount of text, she has good fine motor skills and finds the Palm Pilot easy to use for the mouse-type movements required for Internet access.

Jen sends commands to her PC either by touching the Palm Pilot's screen, or with the stylus.
Jen sends commands to her PC either by touching the Palm Pilot's screen, or with the stylus.

Rossman finds the Palm Pilot superior to a mouse for moving around a Web page because movements are more fluid. He has created a Web page about the technology at

Palm Pilots cost between $150 and $250 and use two AAA batteries, plus a cable to link to the PC. In addition to connecting with schoolmates, Jen also has used the Palm Pilot to e-mail her grandmother, add a page of photos to the family's Web site and download books from the Internet to read on the small screen.

Two software programs adapt the Palm Pilot. Remote Commander enables the electronic planner to actually control the PC, while Shortcutter enables the user to draw buttons of various sizes on the Palm Pilot's screen, making it quicker to execute certain commands.

Originally developed as a business application to help a room full of engineers share a single PC during staff meetings, the Remote Commander program was designed by computer scientist Brad A. Myers. Myers is a faculty member at the Human Computer Interaction Institute of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"Our first application was designed to support meetings, to let us use our Palm Pilot or Pocket PC to control the PC right from our seats. Everybody in the room could take turns doing that," he explains.

"It's really designed to work with any PC application. You can do anything you can do with a keyboard and a mouse just using the Palm Pilot," he adds.

In search of feedback on the applications, Myers' research group made the software available for free on the World Wide Web; it has been downloaded more than 20,000 times. Myers has never met Jen and her parents, and says Jen is the first person with a neuromuscular disease that he knows of to use the applications as adaptive technology — but he hopes she won't be the last.

"We're very eager to support the needs of people with neuromuscular diseases. We'd be delighted to get feedback on how we could make it more useable," Myers says.

Myers and other members of the Pittsburgh Pebbles PDA Project can be reached at:

Human Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science
Carnegie-Mellon University
5000 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3891
(412) 268-5150
(Photos) Jen Rossman, 10, uses the Palm Pilot to go to Web pages and send e-mail. Jen sends commands to her PC either by touching the Palm Pilot's screen (left) or with the stylus (above). Photos by Gerry Raymonda